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The bastions look different from down here. The pock-marked bastion walls merge into the weathered rock, almost as if slowly returning to their natural state, before they were dug out. Looked at closely, the stone seems to have a life of its own, looking back to a time before the bastions were constructed, when people had just started occupying this corner of the earth, when rock and stone were still at one.
Standing in the gentle winter light, the mellow scarred stone looks almost soft, its four centuries of existence clearly written on its face. So ancient is this section of the Citadel, that nature seems to be slowly reclaiming its own, taking back what existed before the walls and buildings, flowing with a life force that has preceded – and will succeed – us all.
We had descended just beneath St John’s demi-bastion, a part of the Citadel that is not often viewed up close. From here the bastions appear simultaneously insurmountable – and vulnerable. At the far end, where the path ends, three structures appear in the rock. One looks like a tunnel in the ground; another, further up in the wall, appears like a bell-shaped aperture that has been walled up. Just below it, a door is hewn in the rock, its elevated position looking mysterious in the silent morning light.
“Together, these three structures represent years of conflict and defence in one snapshot,” says Godwin Vella, senior curator ethnography at Heritage Malta. “Three important phases of the island’s past are brought together in one location, testifying to the need for security which dominated life in Gozo from late prehistory to the 20th century.”
I stare a little blankly at the tunnel and try to peer cautiously inside. “This tunnel formed part of a system of mines which was dug out by the Order in 1645,” explains Godwin. “They were filled with explosive – and, together, would have blown up the Citadel in case of enemy attack.”
Throughout their stay in Gozo, the Order faced a continual dilemma, explains Godwin. On the one hand, they were acutely aware that the Citadel’s defences would never stand up to serious enemy attack; on the other, costs for the building of a new set of fortifications on another site were daunting.
Finally, in 1599, against the advice of the military engineers who warned that the only secure option was to relocate, they undertook a major refortification of the entire Citadel. “The project took 24 years to complete,” says Godwin. “Throughout, the south and east facing flanks of the Citadel were refortified.”
At the end, the site was still not efficient and a contingency plan was set upon. In case of major assault, the entire population of Gozo was to be relocated to Malta or Sicily, while only a number of trained soldiers would be left to man the Citadel alone. If the attacking party proved too strong, the Citadel would be blown up, to avoid it being used as a base to attack Malta, says Godwin.
“That was how real the problem was,” he says. Then, in 1644, it looked like the worst might happen: the Knights of Malta attacked a Turkish convoy on its way from Alexandria to Istanbul. They landed at Kandia (modern-day Crete) with the loot, which included part of the Sultan’s harem, returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca. “The Sultan retaliated and, in 1645, there was a real threat that he would attack Malta,” says Godwin. Fortunately, the attack was averted and the Citadel could breathe freely again. “The Citadel escaped that fate by a breath.” Subsequently, the mines were cleared and sealed by the Order and eventually obscured and forgotten.
Then, in 1991, the entrance of one such tunnel was discovered during the extensive restoration project of St John’s demi-bastion. Since then, it has remained sealed and unexplored, says Godwin, but it remains a reminder of the Order’s perennial dilemma on whether to retain the Citadel or relocate defences to another quarter.
Above the tunnel, in the same sweep, is a bell-shaped aperture in the rock which clearly appears to have been walled up. This is nothing less than the cross-section of a Bronze Age silo, says Godwin, which was cut in mid-section when the Citadel walls were reshaped in the early 1600s.
A whole complex of around 100 silos appears to have existed in another part of the Citadel and been discovered in 1860, when the present road to the Citadel was being remodelled, he says. Their exact location is not known, although it appears that they were situated close to the freshwater plinth. Bell-shaped pits dug into the bedrock for the storage of cereals or freshwater supply, these were documented by A.A. Caruana, then librarian of the Valletta bibliotheca and therefore also in charge of antiquities. They were organized in several rows underlying one another, and communicating by vertical and lateral passages. Caruana believed that these silos formed part of a hypogeum. But two of his drawings – showing marked differences – seem to indicate that he never saw them himself but relied on third-party information. By the time the information was published in the 1880s, a lot of time had elapsed, says Godwin. It now appears that the silos might have been recycled as burials in the classical period.
Directly below the walled-up silo is a mysterious-looking door, standing high up in the rock face. This, it turns out, is a wartime shelter containing around 20 rooms and forming part of the network of 22 shelters in Victoria alone. No detailed plan exists of it, he says, although the shelter has another opening further along the rock face. Its elevated position is due to the fact that previously a slope of debris led to the doorway, says Godwin; when this was removed in the 1990s, the shelter no longer remained accessible.
“The Citadel ditch has often be overlooked,” says Godwin, “but it is an essential part of the fortifications and enriches the texture of the Citadel’s history as much as its better-looking – and less derelict – counterparts.” This is slowly being recognized as the ditch is also being taken into consideration in the Citadel masterplan. I take a final look at the ancient wall, overgrown with grass, possessing a natural life and secrets of its own, a part of the rock from which it has come.
Photography by Rene Rossignaud
Source: Let’s Gozo 2009